Sex in history, by Gordan Rattray Taylor

But between the years 1645 and 1650 there was a flurry of acts, ordinances and proclamations, prohibiting maypoles, abolishing Christmas, Whitsun and Easter as pagan festivals, ordering the Book of Sports to be burnt, and even banning “idle sitting at doors and walking in churchyards”. As one non-Puritan member of the Commons observed, “Let a man be in what posture he will, your penalty finds him.” The extremists, of course, went still further. To some, two sermons on Sunday were “a necessity of salvation“; to ringmore than one church bell to call people to church was as great a sin as murder. Some even drew the line at having roast meat for Sunday dinner, a lead which kitchen maids quickly followed by declaring that it was sinful to wash up the dishes on that day. The only behaviour which was permissible when not actually at church was the singing of psalms or the repeating of sermons. Richard Baxter records with satisfaction how he walked through Kidderminster in 1660 and heard nothing on all sides but the sound of families singing psalms and saying sermons, which had not been the case (he noted) when he first went there in 1641. Baxter’s walk must have been privileged, for the law was that Communion was to be denied to anyone who Played football, travelled, or walked on Sunday.

In all these prohibitions we can clearly see two common elements: a fear of spontaneity, a fear that once the barrier of control was breached anything might happen, and a fear of pleasure. It is curious how often the two go together: enjoyment seems almost proportional to the extent to which cerebral control is lifted; conversely, the man most continuously under control is the least capable of enjoying himself. This restrictive control is somehow external to impulse; it is quite different from the effortless subordination of body to will which is displayed by the dancer or the athlete. That the fear of pleasures alone is not a sufficient explanation is shown by the frequency of Puritan insistence on a restrained demeanour — for instance, the Bishop of Lincoln complained in 1636 that “the ruder sort of people” could not content themselves with walking and talking but wanted something “loud and boisterous”. And it was primarily this fear of spontaneity and feeling which caused the Puritans to object to colour and richness of decoration, and hence to insist on sober clothing and bleak churches-though if they described the use of colour and ornament in churches as “romish” the accusation was fair enough, for these things were undoubtedly a mark of how far the Roman Church had drifted towards matrism.

The two factors together explain the way in which they proscribed innocently spontaneous activities such as sport and dancing; why they anathematized carnivals, masquerades, church ales, mumming and other jollifications; why they detested drink, which notoriously weakens superego control; and why they especially hated the theatre which appeals directly to feelings and unconscious elements in personality.

When they came to power, they attempted not merely to make “immorality” impossible, by imposing the most severe of penalties, but tried to stamp out spontaneity in all its forms. All theatres were permanently closed, and when a company of actors attempted to ignore this law, they were arrested and the theatres were ordered to be demolished. In place of festivals, Days of Publique Humiliation were established, on which all shops were shut, all travel — except to church — forbidden, as was “any unnecessary walking in the fields or upon the Exchange or other places”. For adultery and for incest (the latter meaning any relationship within the degrees not permitted for marriage), the death penalty was instituted; but, curiously enough for ordinary fornication the penalty was the relatively mild one of three months’ imprisonment. Death sentences were actually imposed and executed for these offences, a man of eighty-nine being executed for adultery in 1653 and another for incest (with his brother-in-law’s daughter) in 1656. (151) But juries responded by refusing to convict. Gauleiters were set up, under the name of Major-Generals, to enforce the law. When juries failed to bring in a verdict to their liking, the Juries were dismissed.